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Patrick Hruby

Eight quick tips on the art of interviewing

Last night, I gave a guest lecture to a Georgetown University journalism class. (And yes, I was invited to do so; I can only assume that Michael Lewis was their second choice). During the discussion -- which at one point featured me assuming the role of Washington Wizards guard John Wall, because if there's one mug shot that most belongs next to mine in Spy Magazine's old "separated at birth" bit, it's John Wall's -- we touched on the art of interviewing.

The art of interviewing, of course, mostly being the art of preparing for the worst, and settling for the not-quite-as-bad-as-expected.

Thankfully, a decade-plus of trial-and-error experience has taught me a few things about talking to people. As such, here are the eight interviewing tips I shared with the Georgetown class -- stuff that's probably old hat if you're a seasoned journalist, but may prove useful if you're young or just starting out:

1. Assume you won't get the interview

Interview subjects aren't always accessible. When they are accessible, they sometimes flake. When they don't flake, they often have nothing interesting or useable to say.

(Note: all of the above happens all the time in sports in politics, where the whole interviewee goal in most on-the-record exchanges is to provide a bland, obligatory soundbite that fills space without being, you know, newsworthy).

As such, a reporter needs a contingency plan. What if your calls aren't returned? What if they aren't returned before deadline? Do you have enough information to write your piece anyway? Is there someone else you can call?

If the answer to the last question is yes, then pick up the phone. Actually, you should be doing this anyway. Your backup plan ought to be your reporting plan, period. A good rule of thumb: however many sources you think you need for a particular piece, reach out to triple that number. Interviewing generally is a lot like panning for gold - you have to sift through a lot of mud to find a few decent nuggets of information.

Also: don't take it personally when subjects deign to speak, or agree and then bail. Stuff happens. Interviews are seldom obligatory. Rather, they're usually a favor -- to you. Whether it's a five-minute phone call or an hour-long sit-down, you're taking someone else's valuable time. Keep that in mind.

2. Know your stuff

Remember when Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin, and the latter tried to bluff her way through half of the questions, because she had no idea what she was talking about?

Be Couric. Don't be Palin. Before you commence an interview, prepare, Prepare, prepare, prepare. Prepare some more. Prepare to the point that you pretty much know the answers to the questions you'll be asking. Know what you want out of the interview; have a rough idea of how you expect to get there. Pre-program your conversational GPS.

Here's the thing about interviewers who know their stuff: they ask better questions. They better engage their subjects. They command respect from their subjects by showing respect for their subjects' knowledge and expertise.

Better still, a knowledgeable interviewer is much more likely to sniff out bullshit. And believe me: people are going to bullshit you. They're going to bullshit you when you know they're bullshitting; they're going to bullshit you when you know and and they know you know (essentially, this is the working definition of public relations); and especially, especially when they sense that you don't have a clue.

So make it harder for them. Make it easier for you. Imagine you're dealing with a crumb-covered three-year-old who just swiped a cookie from a forbidden jar. If you ask, "where's the cookie?" they'll probably lie to you. But if you say, "I talked to your older brother, he says he saw you eating a cookie, and besides, your face is smeared with chocolate ... now tell me, where's the cookie?" you'll likely get a blubbery confession.

3. Do it in person

The phone is fine. Email is okay in a pinch, and actually quite good for following-up and fact-checking.

That said, nothing compares to being there. Face to face. People are more open in person. Less easily distracted. They can't hang up. Their body language, their expressions, the subtle way they suck in air before answering a tough question - all of that matters. It tells you more than words alone. And you're in an information-gathering business, first and foremost.

Technology is wonderful. But don't settle for Skype.

4. The interview is more than the actual interview

Many times, the most telling detail or crucial piece of information doesn't come when you're conducting your formal Q-and-A. It comes when a photographer is setting up a shot and making small talk. Or when you're giving a source an unplanned lift across town. Or when someone invites you to stay for dinner.

Be ready. Be alert. Take advantage.

5. Conversation trumps interrogation

When possible, establish a human connection with your interview subjects. Talk with them, not just at them. Be professional, but share a little of yourself. Help your subject feel relaxed and trusting. Show them you're not a ice-cold stenographer, or a heartless vulture from Planet Media.

More to the point, activate your own empathy. The best listeners are the most empathetic ones. And always try to conduct your interview in a casual environment. Ace reporter and "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden once explained it best:

... you would be amazed at how much more a guy will tell you with a beer in his hand in his basement in Cleveland, than a Ranger sitting next to a public affairs officer at Fort Benning. So I eventually got to learn a lot more about Black Hawk Down ...

6. Phrasing matters

So simple. Yet so often botched. (I'm frequently guilty to this day). Phrase your questions in an open-ended way. Ask lots of how and why questions. Keep them short and simple. Ask them one at a time. Avoid anything that can be answered with a yes or no. Don't simply hand the subject a proposition to affirm or contradict.

Oh, and make sure to ask an actual question. Saying "talk about ____________" is not a question. And will also lead me to hunt you down and strangle you. Not literally. That would be against the law. But in my mind. You don't want me to strangle you in my mind, do you?

7. Shut up 

I cribbed this one from Sports Illustrated's Thomas Lake, who is only one of the top magazine writers alive. Lake's point is this: zip it. Talk less. Listen more. Listening -- intense, active, engaged listening -- is hard work; more to the point, it's impossible if you're moving your lips. So stop. Let subjects do the heavy verbal lifting.

An added bonus: many, many people find silence both awkward and uncomfortable. Use this to your benefit. When a subject seems to finish an answer, wait a few beats. Let the answer hang in the air; let the quiet be your friend. More often than not, the interview subject will add something -- and those additions can make all the difference.

8. Leave the lights on when you leave

Two more obvious-yet-oft-forgotten basics: always ask interview subjects if they can recommend other people to speak with; always establish a way to conduct a follow-up interview. You never know who they'll offer up, and you never know when you'll need to get back in touch, even if it's just for tiny fact-checking.

Remember: if you tell your source you may be in touch to check things, it makes you more credible. And that's always a good thing.